Lachlan Barber is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Geography at Hong Kong Baptist University. An urban and cultural geographer by training, Lachlan’s research interests include geographies of policy change, mobility studies (including work-related mobilities and urban transport), and cultural heritage.
Before moving to Hong Kong he held a post-doctoral fellowship in the construction component of the On the Move Partnership where he gathered research for publications such as, “Automobility and Masculinities Between Home and Work: Trucks as the ‘New Normal’ in Newfoundland and Labrador” and “Inside the Mobilities Regime of Newfoundland and Labrador’s SPO projects: Worker Experiences of Rotational Work.”
His PhD research explored shifting terrain of heritage politics in post-handover Hong Kong through a policy mobilities lens. Since moving to Hong Kong he has published several articles on the area, including, “Heritage Tours and Trails on Foot in Hong Kong: Towards a Typology that Crosses the Tourist-Local Divide.”
Hi Lachlan! Thank you for chatting with me this evening. When you worked with OTM in St. John’s your research had looked at the mobility in the rural construction industry but I noticed that your more recent work has considered walking in an urban environment. As a cultural geographer, I’m curious to hear how your own mobility moving from St. John’s to Hong Kong has inspired your own research?
I’m still working with mobility in my current research but approaching it from slightly different angles. I just published a paper that is about mobility justice at the intersection of transport and mobilities. It looks at the mobility system in Hong Kong with the question of, “is it just”? One of the big questions of mobility justice is around distribution and access to public transport. In car-oriented contexts, it asks whether people who don’t have cars are able to access public transport and how access to public transport or automobility is shaped by different aspects of inclusion, like race, gender, income or ability.
Hong Kong has an amazing public transport system, so that question of distribution, can people access public transit, is not the same here as it would be in St. John’s and many other cities in North America, where people who live in the suburbs may have difficulty getting where they need to go using public transport. The public transport here is excellent but there are still questions of justice because of the ways in which public transport intersects with urban development, including the fact that a private company (MTR) owns the rail transport network and they have built massive residential developments on top of stations. This form of development, known as Rail+Property, contributes to the changing property market and rising property values, which are among the most expensive in the world.
My experience of mobility in Hong Kong is quite different from what it was in Canada. Public transport is often very easy and fast in Hong Kong. You rarely have to wait. The train may come every 2 minutes. The bus comes every 5 minutes. It’s affordable so you can go pretty much everywhere, but the distances vary and the conditions are quite different than in Canada. It can often be very crowded and my commute is 40 minutes each way and it involves a train and a mini-bus. That has provided experiences that have helped me to develop questions about urban mobility that I wasn’t thinking about before.
The experience over the last eight months since the protest movement began in Hong Kong has been quite significant in many respects. Of relevance here are the disruptions to mobility. That transport network that provides fast and accessible mobility, that is nevertheless shaped by corporate interests and may not be accessible to everyone in the same way, has been disrupted to an extreme extent at some moments. The entire MTR system, the rail transit system, was shut down for the first time in its existence in October as a result of protests. Different stations were shut down temporarily for police operations including the arrest of protesters who, according to the law, were involved in illegal gatherings. Temporary station closures have affected daily mobilities of thousands of people. For a few months there was a lot of uncertainty about whether trips would be disrupted. The airport was also shut down in the summer when protesters gathered there for strategic reasons.
I think all of these things relate to the politics of mobility. This is an area of research in mobility studies. For example, Tim Cresswell has that well-cited paper, “Towards a Politics of Mobility.” I think this experience in Hong Kong at the intersection of a social and protest movement and the disruption of urban and other mobilities provides a lot of opportunities for us to consider that question – what new questions can we ask about the politics of mobility?
I had heard in the protests that people were gluing bricks to the road to slow down cars and there was a rise in ridesharing where the trains had been shut down. Have you seen a big connection between the protest and the mobility of the city?
Hong Kong is often characterized as a hyper-capitalist system. It’s a very important node for the finance and banking industry and has connections to many places. It’s very densely populated. The port here is significant and integral to a massive urban region, known as The Greater Bay Area or the Pearl River Delta, that features some of China’s biggest cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou. Mobility of people, things, money, and communications is very important to the operation of Hong Kong as a financial hub and global city. The protests that have happened here have, in some ways intentionally and other ways accidentally, disrupted the seamless operation of some of those mobilities.
With the ride sharing, it seems like creative interventions have happened where new kinds of mobility have emerged that involve sharing, cooperation, and people helping one another, especially people who have the privilege of owning a car, which is quite rare in Hong Kong, and who support the protest movement, which not everyone does. Where the MTR operations have been curtailed or when police have targeted certain areas to arrest protesters ride-sharing, enabled by apps, has been used to help people get home.
I’m curious to hear more about this concept of mobility justice. Here in St. John’s there has been a lot of discussion about access to sidewalks and whether it’s a human rights issue. In what ways do you think transit or sidewalks is about mobility justice?
From the experience of living in St. John’s and Halifax and not owning a car I have definitely thought a lot about walking and sidewalk accessibility. Questions of justice relate to the human experience – everyone who relies mainly on sidewalks for mobility shares these in common – but then there are questions that relate to groups and individual experiences that are very different across the population. For example, someone pushing a baby carriage has different needs than someone walking by themselves; someone who uses a wheelchair has different needs than someone who walks. I think there are a lot of questions raised with respect to justice and mobility in a piece of infrastructure as simple as a sidewalk.
Hong Kong is transit-oriented and when people use public transport they usually have to walk a little at the beginning or end of their trips. One of my questions in that research is what kind of walking environments do people have access to and what are their characteristics? They are often in or connected to shopping malls, so semi-privatized spaces that operate with different rules and societal norms and freedoms than public spaces at the street level have.
Thank you for your time. Do you have any final thoughts you would like to share?
My experience of living and working in Hong Kong has inspired some really interesting questions around the intersection of mobilities and other facets of the economy and politics. For example, the political economy of mobility could be explored in Hong Kong. And the intersection of different scales of mobility. Hong Kong is a city and a territory. We have urban mobilities here, so trucks in the street transporting goods, people getting to and from work on public transport – all the mobilities you would see in cities everywhere. But Hong Kong also operates as this semi-autonomous region that has these massive infrastructure projects that connect it to mainland China like a high-speed rail connection and an enormous new bridge, and connections to all around the world through its port and airport. At times I really feel like Hong Kong is the center of the world and so much of what is happening here is on the news in Canada. People are contacting me from home asking me what its like, if I’m ok. The last 9 months have been challenging but Hong Kong is a resilient city and its people have faced challenges before, including the SARS crisis in 2003. I’m ok and I expect Hong Kong will be as well.